New York State Museum opens exhibition featuring extinct Carolina Parakeet

An exhibition, on view May 2, 2012 – Friday, June 1, 2012, in the lobby of the New York State Museum provides visitors with a rare opportunity to see and learn about an iconic North American parakeet, which has been extinct for more than a century.

The exhibition features the Carolina Parakeet, which was once New York’s only native parrot species. It is based on newly published research conducted by Dr. Jeremy Kirchman, the Museum’s curator of birds. Kirchman’s study is highlighted in a cover article in the April issue of The Auk, an international journal of ornithology. The artwork in the exhibition is a digitally updated painting of Carolina Parakeets that was originally created by Michael Rothman and displayed in the State Museum’s first Focus on Nature exhibition in 1990..

“This new lobby exhibition is part of our New York Discovery series through which we periodically share exciting new research conducted by State Museum biologists, anthropologists, geologists and historians,” said Museum Director Mark Schaming. “We hope this information about the natural and cultural history of New York will enhance the educational experience of all visitors, young and old alike.”

The Carolina Parakeet became extinct before any systemic study of its ecology or evolution was undertaken. Kirchman extracted small amounts of degraded DNA from four Carolina Parakeet specimens in the State Museum’s collections and teamed up with scientists at New Mexico State University to use the genetic data to reconstruct the evolutionary history of the species. DNA from the Museum’s specimens was compared to the genetic data from 43 species of parrots from South and Central America and the Caribbean, and from more distantly related species from Africa and Asia.

The study found that the Carolina Parakeet was genetically distinct from all other sampled parrot species and may have colonized North America from South America as long as 5 million years ago, well before the continents were joined approximately 3.5 million years ago.

The Carolina Parakeet once lived and bred throughout the eastern half of North America as far north as Albany and the shores of Lake Ontario, making it by far the most northerly distributed species of parrot. Carolina Parakeets were shot for sport, feathers and to protect agricultural crops. Loss of breeding habitat also may have contributed to its demise. By the time laws were passed to protect birds in the United States, some species, including Labrador Duck, Great Auk, and Passenger Pigeon were already extinct, and Carolina Parakeets had been pushed to the brink. The last reliable sightings of Carolina Parakeets were in Florida in the 1920s.

“Our new study using DNA sequencing technology to analyze specimens up to 130 years old highlights the enduring value of the State Museum’s collections,” said Kirchman. “Our continued research and exhibition of Carolina Parakeets reminds us that there once was a time when wild bird populations were not protected from indiscriminant destruction. The millions of birders and nature lovers of New York have been deprived of an important element of our shared natural history.”

Kirchman and Rothman will present a free lecture on the science and art behind The Auk article.

“New Insights on Evolution and Extinction of New York’s only native parrot, the Carolina Parakeet” will be presented on Saturday, May 5 from 1-2 p.m. in the Museum’s Huxley Theater.

Established in 1836, the New York State Museum is a program of the State Education Department’s Office of Cultural Education. Located on Madison Avenue in Albany, the Museum is open Monday through Saturday from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. except on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. Admission is free. Further information can be obtained by calling (518) 474-5877 or visiting the Museum website at www.nysm.nysed.gov

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